Hanna and Mrowka v. Chicago

Appellate Court of Illinois, First District, No. 06 CH 19422, unpublished, September 26, 2013: Words ‘historic’, ‘significant’, ‘value’ not vague in landmarks ordinance.

The plaintiffs challenged the landmarks ordinance under which the city designated as historic landmarks the neighborhoods in which the plaintiffs own property. They asserted that the ordinance was invalid and unconstitutional because it uses words and phrases with vague meanings as criteria by which the landmarks determination is made. This court decision was in response to cross motions for summary judgment by the parties.

The court’s analysis started from a presumption of validity in favor of the ordinance. The court wrote that an ordinance could be found to be vague if it authorizes or encourages discriminatory enforcement, but is not vague “if it provides law enforcement and the judiciary with a reasonable standard to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory legal enforcement.”  The court noted that a “reasonable standard” requires neither “mathematical certainty” nor “perfect clarity and precise guidance.”

The plaintiffs challenged words and phrases in the seven criteria the ordinance says the landmarks commission is to use in making a landmark recommendation, such as “may or may not,” “or other,” “value,” “exemplary,” “critical,” “historic,” and “significant,” and the ordinance’s requirement that the commission consider “whether there is a significant historic, community, architectural, or aesthetic interest or value in the property.”

The court rejected the plaintiffs’ challenge and upheld the statute, writing, “… we find that all of [these words and phrases] have popular understandings and are used commonly enough to not be considered vague in the context of a constitutional challenge. … In the broader context, the Ordinance deals with historic preservation, which encompasses a greater purpose and objective.  Because the words used to implement this have common meaning and are intelligible, as reflected by the standards discussed, we find that the challenged terms and phrases are sufficiently detailed under the circumstances to guide the Commission in its duties and responsibilities.”

A link to the decision can be found in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Leadership Forum blog, at http://blog.preservationleadershipforum.org/2013/10/11/chicago-landmarks-ordinance/#.UmAIrBBuGB5, which also provides interesting commentary on the case by Will Cook.

Thanks to Jess Phelps at Historic New England for bringing this decision to my attention.

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